Thetford Elementary Solar Expansion is approved and will provide discounted power to residents, one detail still contested

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Thetford Elementary Solar Expansion is approved and will provide discounted power to residents, one detail still contested

Two years ago TES Solar LLC, a subsidiary of Norwich Technologies, applied to the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to expand the solar array owned by Thetford Elementary School (TES) on Thetford Hill. The proposal was to quadruple the size of the array owned by the school by adding 375 kW of capacity to the existing 120 kW array. What followed was a lengthy process due to the desire of TES Solar to get the same net metering rate (a payment from Green Mountain Power for surplus electricity generated by the array) as was granted to the original array in 2014, because the current rates are significantly lower.

The PUC held that the TES case would set precedent for several other expansions of existing solar arrays that were in the works. All these cases were put on hold for over a year while legal arguments from TES and a small Vermont utility, Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC), were weighed. VEC argued that if the PUC allowed TES to use the 2014 net metering rate, it would negatively impact VEC in a case in VEC’s service territory.

On December 15, 2023, after a lengthy process, the PUC finally issued the go-ahead — the Certificate of Public Good (“CPG”) to TES Solar, authorizing the construction and operation of the expansion to the school’s solar array. For the new solar panels, TES Solar will get the current net metering rate, not the better-paying rate they wanted dating back to 2014.

However, there is a wrinkle. The solar array is located on a “Preferred Site,” a definition in Vermont statute that includes,  "A specific location designated in a duly adopted municipal plan ... or identified in a joint letter of support from the municipal legislative body and municipal and regional planning commissions.”

In granting the CPG, the PUC wrote, “The Project’s designation as a Preferred Site under PUC Rule 5.100, and its receipt of the corresponding siting adjustor, is based on Condition 7 of the CPG, which provides that, “[f]or the first 10 years of the Project’s operation, no less than 50% of the output of the Project must be allocated to a customer who is located on the same parcel as, or directly adjacent to, the Project.”

This is spelled out in Section 5.103, the Definitions section of Rule 5.100

If this were to hold, it would interfere with one of the goals of this expansion, which is for TES Solar to distribute its surplus electricity to low-income residents. Indeed, even the Elementary School, the main consumer of the power, is not “on the same parcel or directly adjacent” to the location of the solar array. Two private properties lie in between. 

Thus on January 10, 2024, TES Solar filed a motion asking to alter or amend the CPG to remove Condition 7. In its argument, TES Solar asserted that the Project’s location on a Preferred Site is established under Rule 5.103 “Preferred Site” because the Project is sited at “[a] specific location designated in a duly adopted municipal plan under 24 V.S.A. chapter 117.”

TES went on to assert that the PUC “misapprehended the record evidence and ordered a restriction on the Project’s output that will defeat the Project’s intended purpose” and that the site gets its Preferred Site designation under Thetford’s Enhanced Energy Plan that does not contain Condition 7. 

On January 24th the VT Department of Public Service filed a response, rebutting the position of TES Solar. They commented that the Enhanced Energy Plan was mentioned by TES “seemingly as a consideration but not the main reason that the site qualifies as a Preferred Site.” The Department of Public Service concluded, “However, the Department is not categorically opposed to TES Solar amending the grounds for its qualification for being located on a Preferred Site” … but “[such] requests are only granted under extraordinary circumstances and will not be used to relieve a party from free, calculated, and deliberate choices. … As such, the Department maintains a Project amendment (rather than a Preferred Site amendment) would be a more appropriate means of seeking the relief TES desires.”

This latest legalistic snag has not prevented the Energy Committee from starting to recruit qualified Thetford residents to receive discounted electricity from the new array once it is built. The current discount is about 7% below Green Mountain Power Rates. In addition, the 2023 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) adds incentives that may increase this discount to 20-25% for income-eligible households. 

For this program it will be necessary to recruit enough qualifying households to use at least half of the power from the new array (about 35-40 households). There is an April 15, 2024 deadline to show significant progress toward recruiting enough qualifying households.

The Energy Committee and Norwich Solar have developed a Letter of Interest (LOI) with which to start collecting names, contact information, and GMP account information from those who might be interested in participating. Once the details on qualifying income levels and discount rates for added incentives are finalized, everyone who has filled out the LOI will be contacted about the final details. Residents will not be asked to sign any contracts until these details are finalized. 

The number of available shares of the array are limited and will be offered to people outside of Thetford if not claimed by residents. The Energy Committee will have a table at Town Meeting where up-to-date information may be obtained and questions answered. 

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